Inside Shang-Chi, the MCU movie as culturally significant as Black Panther

Shang-Chi feels like another positive step towards greater representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Often criticized for its over-reliance on white and cisgender male superheroes, Marvel has finally started to diversify the lead roles in its recent films, most notably with Black Panther and Black Widow.

It’s a welcome move, though long overdue, and one that Shang-Chi, Marvel’s latest superhero film starring its first Asian superhero, is looking to build on. With nearly 60% of the world’s population living in Asia, or being of Asian descent, it’s high time an MCU film celebrated the continent’s diverse cultures and societal values.

Set after Avengers: Endgame, the film opens with Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) posing as Shaun, a San Francisco native who works as a valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).

When assassins attack Shang-Chi and steal his mother’s pendant, he is forced to return home and find his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi also has to face the Ten Rings: a criminal organization led by Wenwu, which wields the almighty titular bracelets.

Ahead of Shang-Chi’s release, TechRadar spoke with director Destin Daniel Cretton to discuss the importance of making a superhero film that authentically captures the Asian (and Asian American) experience. We also discussed the frenzied fight sequences of the film and what the future holds for Shang-Chi in the MCU.

A heroic reinvention

Simu Liu prepares to fight in Marvel's Shang-Chi movie

(Image credit: Marvel Studios / Disney)

Shang-Chi is a character whose comedic story is synonymous with negative Asian stereotypes. The Marvel superhero made his print debut in 1973, but over the past 50 years Shang-Chi’s various comic book series have been packed with race-insensitive names and clichés.

Doing justice to Shang-Chi meant that Marvel needed to eliminate negative stereotypes associated with the character. Renaming Shang-Chi’s father (Xu Wenwu) and the mystical dragon (the Great Protector), who inhabit the pocket-sized village known as Ta Lo, were first well-received steps, but more was needed. .

So Shang-Chi’s origins have also been updated for his live-action debut. With the film opening before he fled to the United States as a teenager, audiences find out that Shang-Chi is leading a secret life as Shaun – a far cry from his comedic counterpart who was born (and a resided) in China until he was an adult.

Hiring an Asian American director was therefore vital to give this film some creative credibility. After a long worldwide search, Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, The Glass Castle) was selected for the role. Initially hesitant to direct a superhero movie, Cretton says Marvel’s desire to update Shang-Chi for the present, coupled with the authentic capture of the Asian experience, has been key to his signing.

“I never had a superhero I could dress like on Halloween or someone who looked quite like me as a kid,” Cretton tells us. “They [Marvel] wanted to tell this story the right way and avoid all the long-standing Asian stereotypes. Being able to do this for another generation of young children was really exciting for me.

Like Black Panther, whose sizable cast consisted of many black actors, Shang-Chi’s line-up mainly includes many well-known Asian actors as well as newcomers.

Stars established in Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love), Awkwafina (The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians), Fala Chen (The Undoing) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) all feature. Meanwhile, rising star Simu Liu (Bad Blood) and Meng’er Zhang, in his very first film role, play Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing, respectively.

With 13 of his cast of Asian descent, Cretton believes Shang-Chi will be as culturally important to Asian populations as Black Panther was to black communities.

“Growing up, my friends were mostly Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan,” he says. “When I first went to the Americas, I felt out of place. Someone came to me at a bar and called me Bruce Lee and I was like ‘Oh yeah I’m different here’. Now, I can’t wait for people to meet our characters. They are all of Asian descent and similar ethnicities, but there is such a wide range of personalities and I am delighted that Asians and non-Asians alike notice that we are like everyone else.

Deadly battles and future films

Shang-Chi fights Razor Fist in Marvel's Shang-Chi superhero movie

(Image credit: Marvel Studios / Disney)

While Marvel wanted to avoid stereotypes insensitive to Shang-Chi, the studio was keen to retain a key aspect of the character’s comic book series: martial arts.

Known as the Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is an expert in many styles of fighting. So honoring every form of combat, as well as Kung Fu cinema, was as important to the film’s chief creative team as other aspects of its production.

Hiring the late Bradley James Allan (Rush Hour 2, Shanghai Noon) as the director of the second unit and stunt coordinator was key to the film’s martial arts authenticity. Expert choreographers, movement artists and parkour masters were also recruited from Mongolia, Australia and Canada to create the Shang-Chi battle sequences.

With fighting styles ranging from Hong Quan to Meditative Taiji and from Krav Maga to Wushu, Shang-Chi’s close quarters combat is physically and visually impressive.

Cretton, however, distinguishes the film’s bus battle, where Shang-Chi is attacked by the Ten Rings for the first time, as the most difficult to film. With actors scuffling in the closed environment of the bus – both over a built set and an actual moving vehicle – this turned out to be a test sequence to shoot.

“We toured in an accordion bus that was 20 feet in the air,” says Cretton. “And it was in a gimbal that could move, twist, and go through a 45-degree angle. All of those turns were in sync with the practical shots we got in San Francisco.

“We had a real bus coming down the hill that crashed into cars which, with the choreography of Brad and his team, added energy and humor to this fight. There was a lot of coordination between departments to make sure everything made sense and was cohesive, and that turned out to be my favorite experience in the movie.

Shang-Chi is expected to feature prominently in the future of the MCU. The film’s ending and post-credits scenes tease the character’s involvement in Phase 4 and beyond, but, at the moment, Cretton isn’t quite sure where his story goes.

“These ideas [for sequels or cameo appearances] are in progress, ”he teases. “And they have been since the start of production. Where will Marvel go in the future? I’m not sure, but I can assure you it’s very exciting.

Regardless of where Shang-Chi appears next, the character’s live-action debut is another step forward for the MCU.

Where Black Panther celebrated black communities, and Captain Marvel and Black Widow paved the way for gender equality (albeit for a series of superhero films), Shang-Chi belatedly brings an authentic focus on the ‘Asia that Marvel’s multi-billion dollar empire lacked.

Marvel wanted to tell this story the right way

Shang-Chi Destin director Daniel Cretton

As part of this quartet, Shang-Chi helps usher in a more meaningful performance in the MCU.

Marvel’s Eternals will bring the first openly gay and deaf superheroes to the world’s largest cinematic universe. Ms. Marvel will introduce Kamala Khan to a Muslim hero on Disney Plus, while Marvel’s She-Hulk TV show will continue to develop the MCU’s line of female heroes. Blade and Ironheart, too, will bring more overpowered black beings to audiences around the world.

After many movies and TV shows centered around white, straight male superhumans, each new arrival is a step in the right direction. Shang-Chi is another example that shows Marvel wants to increase representation in the MCU; it’s just a shame that it took until Black Panther in 2018 for the studio to do it.

Yet Shang-Chi is a historic moment. The character’s first appearance in the MCU has been a long time coming and, provided audiences get to experience Marvel’s last live-action superhero, it won’t be their last.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters now.

About Bernard Kraft

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